What We Learn About the Pop Machine from Films Like ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’

What We Learn About the Pop Machine from Films Like ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’

Nick Broomfield's newest documentary is yet another reminder that the music industry can devour people.
June 15, 2017, 10:30am

We see two types of "erratic behaviour" in music. The first is from artists we expect it from, because it's part of their public-facing persona: Ozzy Osbourne snorting a line of red ants because he thought they were drugs; Keith Richards nearly setting fire to the Playboy mansion after smoking heroin in the bathroom; Pete Doherty robbing his best mate's flat for drug money. Often this is seen from men, often white men in rock, whose reputations remain unscathed, sometimes even bolstered, by all the weird or unsavoury shit they get up to.

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The second, though, is from artists who are forced to keep it under wraps because it's not "supposed" to be part of their brand: Britney Spears shaving her head and going for the paps with an umbrella; Justin Bieber pissing into a bucket and swearing about Bill Clinton; Amy Winehouse pictured with bleeding toes and white powder around her nose. This is often seen from those in pop, quite often women, whose personas "depend" on them being hemmed in; on keeping anything that's detrimental to their public image hidden from view; on not being themselves. Because, in an industry still primarily propped up by a patriarchal structure, and marketed towards a younger audience, an "unruly" woman is not considered marketable. The pop apparatus presents a tiny box, tries to shove an artist inside it, and when they obviously don't fit, it becomes their undoing.

Which is where the new Nick Broomfield documentary on Whitney Houston, Whitney: Can I Be Me, comes in. Released in the UK and showing at select US film festivals this month, Can I Be Me is different to Broomfield's most well-known documentaries. Gone is the intrusive, investigative style of Biggie and Tupac or Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer, replaced instead by a more classic documentary format, with interviews from family and friends of the singer, interspersed with footage of Whitney in interviews and performances – particularly never-before-seen backstage clips from her famous 1999 World Tour. Through this, we are presented with an artist who was dangerously, effortlessly talented, but who had every aspect of her life controlled in order to make as much money for as many people as possible. And finally, when that became too much to bear, how her drug use became a public spectacle, eventually leading to her death in 2012.

Really though, the documentary says more about the suffocating structure of pop than it does about Whitney herself. Broomfield reveals how her label, Arista Records, attempted to slowly scrub away her black roots and Newark upbringing in order to craft an image that felt "palatable" for white, mainstream pop audiences. How an unspoken and latent homophobia eventually pushed Robyn Crawford – a close friend from her childhood who is also openly gay – out of her life because it didn't fit with this so-called "pristine" persona. How she wasn't given leeway to publish or perform music that she'd written herself, or even receive many royalties from what she did record. And how she was pushed into a relentless tour schedule, even when she wasn't really healthy enough to do so.

Some of these holdbacks were quite specific to the 1980s. "I think it was about being black at that time, and being a woman too," Nick Broomfield tells me when I ask how much of Whitney's personal issues he thought were related to the industry itself. "The way they manufactured her was very weird… there was a "black division" and a "white division" in the record company, and there was the whole notion of crossing black artists over to white audiences – she was a victim to all of that." Her career was, according to Broomfield, closely intertwined with a stripping away of her identity. "It was all to do with her not being able to be herself," he continues, adding: "Everyone thought she was a different person, so then they all condemned her for not being that person. She had a pretty rough deal, I think. And then, of course, she was completely judged for retreating into drugs when she simply couldn't deal with it."

But this obviously isn't the first time we've seen something like this. In fact, Can I Be Me serves as yet another reminder of how the music industry can devour the most talented people by pushing them so far they are forced to retreat – whether it's Marilyn Monroe in the 1960s all the way up to Amy Winehouse passing away from alcohol poisoning a few years ago. Even a case like Kesha's – in which she is still locked into a contract with Sony imprint Kemosabe after claiming producer Dr Luke (ex-CEO of the label) sexually assaulted and abused her – is an example of how the pop machine can be a tyrannical structure that places a person's wellbeing below how much money they're going to make.

And while it's reductive to point fingers solely at the music industry when any high-profile artist experiences difficulties, the intense levels of scrutiny coming from all angles at the top are surely enough to make anybody buckle under the pressure. In a 1996 interview clip that appears in the documentary, Whitney addresses the subject herself: "Success doesn't change you, fame does… if you don't know who you are before you step into this business, you'll probably wind up being someone you don't even like."

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That said, none of this is to paint Whitney as a victim, or to define her by her struggles. She is, first and foremost, one of the strongest, most brilliant singers we've ever seen, and she's also incredibly likeable – which comes across in the film. "I didn't know much about her before I made this. For a while, I was hoping I would not dislike her," Broomfield tells me. "And then, I was suddenly really moved by her. I think the thing that always gets to me about Whitney is that she was so funny and such a prankster, so different from 'The Whitney Houston'. I think she just wanted to have a fun life, and she couldn't have one. And she was also unbelievable… She was just an amazing person."

There is a clip from 2009, three years before she passed, in which Whitney performs her track "Million Dollar Bill" on the UK version of The X Factor. At this point she was approaching 50, and had been performing tirelessly for literally decades. Headlines in the British press immediately after the show dismissed the performance as "bizarre" and "shambolic", with The Telegraph claiming her vocals were "sub par", dedicating an entire article to a list of criticisms from her fans.

Watching it back now, though, she still hits every note effortlessly, she still storms onto the stage like a human meteorite, you still can't take your eyes off her. Perhaps the bar had been lifted far too high – because even at her worst, Whitney was the best. "She was like a warhorse," Broomfield says, "every time, she just went for it."

'Whitney: Can I Be Me' shows in select UK theatres from Friday 16 June.

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(All images via PR)